Richard Wager remains one of the most captivating and controversial cultural and historical figures in German history, admired and respected for his invaluable contribution to music, yet loathed for his powerful anti-Semitism. It is this aspect of Wager’s fascinating life; his passion for music and his hatred of the Jews and how these co-existed that have sparked an ongoing historical debate about his legacy as both a cultural icon and as an anti-Semite. Debate which has lead to contentious questions; can we separate the artist from the man? Should he be held accountable for the use of his music and writings by Hitler and the Nazi Party? How should Israeli’s and Jews alike receive his music today?
Anti-Semitism in the thought of Wagner:
In Judaism In Music, one of his most infamous essays, Wagner states that his hatred of the Jews stems from a respect for art and a desire to protect the authenticity and quality of music. He believed Jewish people were inherently driven by a desire for wealth and that they feed of the misfortune of others in order to profit from it. Wagner argues that this money-hungry nature of the Jews renders them completely incapable of producing genuine art.. According to Jeffery S. Librett in The Rhetoric of Cultural Dialogue: Jews and Germans from Moses Mendelssohn to Richard Wagner and Beyond, the end result of Wagner’s anti-Semitic attack in Judaism In Music is the placement of Jews on the outside of the artistic world, stripping them from any position whereby they might receive respect, praise or success. He believed any professional misfortune he experienced was due to a Jewish conspiracy, blaming negative reception to his operas on a scheme against him by predominantly Jewish critics and dismissed all criticisms of his work. Wagner’s anti-Semitism was a tool by he was able to defend his own work and rid himself of legitimate competition. He found Jewish people to be repugnant, he was utterly intolerable to the manner in which they spoke, to the sound of their voices, their physical appearances and their culture. Through his anti-Semitic writings he dehumanised the Jews, removed them from art, nature and society and subsequently turned them into a sub-human species.
Wagner and Hitler:
Although Hitler himself never made any direct reference to Wagner as an ideological mentor, it has been noted that Hitler was a great fan of Wagner and that his own beliefs on the Jews were in a huge way influenced by him. According to Frederic Spotts in Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, Hitler’s style of speech, his dramatic, emotionally driven oratory skills and the style of the public rallies and Nazi Party ceremonies were modelled off the style of Wagner’s operas.
Although Hitler was a great fan of Wagner on an artistic and ideological level, to hold him responsible for the political development of the NSDAP and charge him with inspiring the events executed under the leadership of Hitler would be a gross injustice to his legacy. Regardless of how influential Wagner may or may not have been on Hitler, this should in no way negatively impact his legacy. To name Wagner as a forerunner to National Socialism based on the actions of Hitler and the Third Reich is to strengthen a relationship which Wagner had no part in. Wagner was deceased long before Hitler developed an interest in him, long before Hitler came into power and long before the Holocaust; he played no active role in the events which transpired under the Third Reich.
The case of Daniel Barenboim:
Although the association between Wagner and Hitler is misguided and exaggerated, it has left an indelible mark on his musical and cultural legacy. In Israel in 2001 Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim performed Wagner’s Overture to Tristan and Isolde to the outrage and disgust of many Jewish people in the audience. This extremely harsh reception to Wagner’s work brings about a vexing question: Can we separate the man from the music?
Barenboim has stated that Wagner as a musician is entirely independent of his personal beliefs, he doesn’t attempt to defend Wagner’s reputation as an anti-Semite; rather, he is forthcoming about the fact that he finds Wagner’s anti-Semitism to be shocking and vile. However he believes that Wagner’s music is of immeasurable value and that he ought to be recognised for his contribution to art above all else.
Wagner as an artist and Wagner as an anti-Semite can often be difficult to reconcile, however the fact remains that they are not inextricably linked. Wagner was both a musical genius and an anti-Semite; however his music holds a unique cultural and historical value on its own. The man can, (and should) be separated from the artist.